Redefining Russian elections: insights from Moscow's 2023 mayoral race

Olga Vlasova delves into Moscow's recent unconventional mayoral elections. She finds the campaigns were completely lacking in public debate, and that the result was a foregone conclusion. A stark departure from tradition, these elections may well have set the tone for next year's presidential race

The 2024 Russian presidential elections have attracted significant attention, particularly in light of the Ukraine conflict. Vladimir Putin hopes to secure re-election with over 90% of the votes, as his press secretary Dmitry Peskov recently confirmed.

Peskov has also labelled democratic processes themselves a 'costly bureaucracy', hinting that Russia may choose to jettison such processes altogether. The Moscow mayoral elections from 8–10 September proved a test of this novel election strategy.

Putin's press secretary has dismissed conventional democratic processes as 'costly bureaucracy', suggesting the Kremlin may abandon them entirely

Steering clear of politics

Moscow's 2023 mayoral campaign stands out as one of the most lacklustre and uneventful electoral endeavours in recent Russian history. Lacking in substance and in competition, the campaign was far from traditional.

Even prior to the campaign, Speaker of the Moscow City Parliament Alexey Shaposhnikov publicly acknowledged that, given the absence of viable challengers to incumbent Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, the elections would be far from competitive.

Sobyanin's nominal competitors included Dmitry Gusev from Just Russia, Vladislav Davankov representing New People, Leonid Zyuganov of the Communist Party, and LDPR's Boris Chernyshov. However, none of these candidates actively pursued the mayoral position – and this strengthened yet further Sobyanin's belief in his inevitable victory.

His confidence translated into a campaign strategy that – bizarrely – steered clear of any actual politics.

Sobyanin's personal blogsite, his primary online platform, features only three posts related to the 2023 elections. These covered his nomination, an appeal for the use of e-voting, and an expression of gratitude to Moscow's citizens for their support:

11 September 2023

Thank you, Muscovites. Victory will be ours.

Preliminary voting results for the Moscow mayoral elections have been announced. Thank you, my dear ones, for your support.

Throughout the 2023 campaign, Mayor Sobyanin's website and Telegram channel focused primarily on updates about the city authorities' ongoing work. There was little in the way of electoral or promotional activity.

Sobyanin's 2018 mayoral campaign, in stark contrast, featured a wide range of political and promotional content, meticulously documented on his campaign website.

A campaign of silence?

Nor were there any pre-election videos television or online audiences featuring the incumbent Mayor.

Sergey Sobyanin and his principal challenger Leonid Zyuganov were notably absent from pre-election debates. While other mayoral contenders did initially attend, participation dwindled. By the end of August, only one LDPR representative remained.

My survey of Moscow billboards during July and August 2023 revealed only 20 posters promoting the incumbent mayor as a candidate. This stands in stark contrast with the 2018 campaign, during which the number of billboards exceeded 1,000.

My 2023 survey found only 20 billboards promoting the incumbent candidate. In 2018, by contrast, the number exceeded 1,000

Among the registered mayoral candidates, only Leonid Zyuganov and Vladislav Davankov shared details of their personal meetings with prospective voters. In contrast, other contenders, including the incumbent Sobyanin, made no mention of face-to-face meetings.

The Kremlin banned mass events such as pickets and rallies, which had been common in prior election campaigns. It cited the ongoing Covid-19 threat as reason for these restrictions, despite the World Health Organization having declared the pandemic's end on 5 May.

Sobyanin’s campaign

In the absence of traditional components of a public election campaign, Sergey Sobyanin pursued an unconventional strategy. He urged Muscovites to base their votes on real accomplishments rather than on pre-election rhetoric and promises.

The 80-page document Moscow: Results and Development Plans Until 2030 served as Sobyanin's primary – indeed, almost exclusive – campaign material.

The election outcome

The election results were as follows:
Dmitry Gusev 3.93%
Vladislav Davankov 5.34%
Leonid Zyuganov 8.11%
Sergey Sobyanin 76.39%
Boris Chernyshov 5.61%

Moscow City Electoral Commission, 10 September 2023

1. Number of voters on the list7,700,590
2. Number of ballot papers received by the precinct electoral commission5,409,513
3. Number of ballots issued inside the polling station3,208,780
4. Number of ballots issued outside the polling station116,340
5. Number of invalidated ballots2,084,440
6. Number of ballot papers contained in portable ballot boxes116,132
7. Number of ballot papers contained in stationary ballot boxes3,155,525
8. Number of invalid ballots20,070
9. Number of valid ballots3,251,587
9a. Number of lost ballots15
9b. Number of ballots not accounted for upon receipt62
10. Gusev Dmitry Gennadievich128,701
3.93%
11. Davankov Vladislav Andreevich174,869
5.34%
12. Zyuganov Leonid Andreevich265,374
8.11%
13. Sobyanin Sergey Semenovich2,499,114
76.39%
14. Chernyshov Boris Aleksandrovich183,529
5.61%

These results are noteworthy for several reasons. Sobyanin's unwavering confidence in his victory stemmed from the unique circumstances of the election process. The introduction of online voting exerted immense pressure on voters. Turnout at e-voting stations during working hours was remarkably high, suggesting that coercion was involved.

Turnout at e-voting stations during working hours was remarkably high, suggesting that coercion was involved

Moreover, people who turned up at polling stations to vote by ballot were then directed toward electronic voting kiosks. If the person still did not want to vote electronically, they were, with reluctance, given a paper ballot, produced from a secure location. Indeed, Moscow resident Alla Laitaruk was fined 500 rubles for refusing to vote electronically, and demanding a paper ballot.

Public sector workers reported many instances of coercion towards e-voting. These included alleged pressure on doctors at Moscow State Clinical Hospital No.67 and on employees of Gazprom Energy. As a result, over 80% of votes were cast using the e-voting system.

Remote electronic voting, 10 September 2023

1. Number of voters on the list2,714,147
2. Number of ballot papers received by the precinct electoral commission2,714,147
3. Number of ballots issued inside the polling station2,714,147
4. Number of ballots issued outside the polling station0
5. Number of invalidated ballots0
6. Number of ballot papers contained in portable ballot boxes0
7. Number of ballot papers contained in stationary ballot boxes2,665,767
8. Number of invalid ballots12
9. Number of valid ballots2,665,755
9a. Number of lost ballots0
9b. Number of ballots not accounted for upon receipt0
10. Gusev Dmitry Gennadievich103,762
3.89%
11. Davankov Vladislav Andreevich136,573
5.12%
12. Zyuganov Leonid Andreevich212,153
7.96%
13. Sobyanin Sergey Semenovich2,053,954
77.05%
14. Chernyshov Boris Aleksandrovich159,313
5.98%

Russian elections have long featured elements of falsification, and these elections were no different. Restrictions on the rights of observers and journalists, however, rendered any fraudulent activity challenging to detect. Observers documented instances of ballot-stuffing in the Sokolinaya Gora area at polling station №1246. And polling stations №268 and №2972 failed to seal the ballot boxes. This risked the insertion or removal of ballot papers; a significant violation of electoral protocol.

Harbinger of Putin's 2024 campaign?

Numerous signs already indicate that President Putin's campaign may unfold along the same lines as the Moscow mayoral elections.

Peskov has already claimed that if Putin runs for office, no one will be able to compete with him. The Kremlin appears resolute in maintaining bans on pickets and on in-person meetings with voters. As in the Moscow mayoral race, debates will be scheduled at the most inconvenient times, making it unappealing even for nominal candidates to participate. Almost all key regions will use the e-voting system, which is not subject to external moderation. Finally, a proposed law restricting campaign material distribution hints at the end of traditional newspapers, brochures, and leaflets.

All this suggests that public politics as we know it may soon be a thing of the past in Russia.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Author

photograph of Olga Vlasova
Olga Vlasova
Visiting Researcher, Russia Institute, King’s College London

Olga conducts research on Russian politics.

Her background is in practical politics and political science.

Olga's educational journey includes a PhD in political science from Lomonosov Moscow State University, with a focus on the comparative analysis of educational policies in contemporary European states.

She also holds dual Bachelor's and Master's degrees in political sciences and high school teaching.

As a visiting scholar at King’s College London, Olga conducts research into the 'politics of fear and calming' in Russia.

Since January 2016, she has been an Assistant Professor at the State Academic University for the Humanities in Moscow, where she has taught various disciplines, including regional politics and comparative politics.

Olga's contributions extend beyond academia to practical politics.

She has been Director of International Internship at the Higher School of Economics University and has held various management roles at the Moscow School of Management, SKOLKOVO.

Olga's dedication to democracy and public service is evident in her active involvement in Russian politics.

Olga currently serves as an advisor to the leader of the Yabloko faction in the Moscow City Duma and is a member of the Youth Public Chamber of Russia.

She has also been a candidate in parliamentary elections, an authorised representative in presidential elections, and has played a significant role in YABLOKO party campaigns.

Throughout her career, Olga has received prestigious awards, including the Scholarship of the Government of the Russian Federation and the Scholarship of the Vladimir Potanin Foundation.

Olga's research primarily focuses on propaganda and media, societal support for violence, digital authoritarianism, educational policies, and political education in contemporary European states.

Currently, Olga continues her work on the complex tactics employed by the Russian government to manipulate public sentiment in connection with Russia's war in Ukraine.

This project focuses on contemporary 'politics of pacification' strategies employed by the Russian government since the start of the war.

It aims to determine the effectiveness of these pacification efforts and their implications for contemporary governance during crises.

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